Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Thoughts on the similarities between bird-watching and counterinsurgency

The fun I had helping a neighbor at Christmastime with the Audubon annual census of birds on our island inspired me to read Sibley’s Birding Basics. As I did, I was struck by how you could read some of his instructions as a supplement to David Kilcullen‘s recommendations on observing insurgents. –"Watch the edges of ...

dreamsjung/ Flickr
dreamsjung/ Flickr

The fun I had helping a neighbor at Christmastime with the Audubon annual census of birds on our island inspired me to read Sibley's Birding Basics. As I did, I was struck by how you could read some of his instructions as a supplement to David Kilcullen's recommendations on observing insurgents.

--"Watch the edges of the flock and pay special attention to outlying birds or those that act differently; they may be a different species."

--"Consider the time of day."

The fun I had helping a neighbor at Christmastime with the Audubon annual census of birds on our island inspired me to read Sibley’s Birding Basics. As I did, I was struck by how you could read some of his instructions as a supplement to David Kilcullen‘s recommendations on observing insurgents.

–"Watch the edges of the flock and pay special attention to outlying birds or those that act differently; they may be a different species."

–"Consider the time of day."

–"Anticipate the birds’ needs."

–"Follow the birds. If you find a number of birds in an area, consider why they might be there. Is there a concentration of food? Is it a warm or cool spot?"

–"Another important point for beginners to understand is that bird identification is not an exact science and often does not involve absolute certainty."

–"Looking at a bird with prejudice, having already determined that it is likely to be one species and leading only to confirm that identification, will lead you into error.… Guard against forming an opinion until all of the evidence is in."

Also, be ready for the unexpected: I was surprised that Sibley lists Central Park, smack in middle of the concrete canyons of New York City, as great bird-watching spot. The reason, he writes, is that migrating birds gravitate toward it, as "the largest patch of natural habitat in the area"– not unlike, he writes, a desert oasis.

Of course, both bird-watching and dealing with insurgents began by hunting them down and killing them, until those doing the shooting realized there often might be a better approach. With knowledge comes the understanding that hawks act differently from shrikes, and a strong tribe differently from a marginalized one.  

Speaking of growing understanding, I finished reading Senator’s Son, which takes that as its theme. I enjoyed it enormously. More next week about that.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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